We’ve all heard the refrain “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” The truth is, words and word choice can make a big difference in people’s perceptions – including perceptions that affect the safety of everyone using our streets to drive, walk or bike. Research published in the Dec. 2019 issue of “Transportation Research Interdisciplinary Perspectives” shows that subtle shifts in language used in reporting pedestrian-related traffic crashes can influence how readers identify traffic safety problems and solutions.
For example, the language used in the Scottsbluff Star-Herald March 5 story about a driver hitting a student in front of Scottsbluff High School put the focus on the student victim and used the word “vehicle” instead of “driver” in the headline and first sentence of the story. This type of framing tends to cause readers to react by blaming the student and also obscures the role of human error in the crash, making it sound like an object was to blame. The story did provide context that research shows is important for building support to make safety improvements: this crash was the second in a year in which a driver hit a student in front of the high school. If a pattern of crashes is identified in the story, readers are more likely to think infrastructure changes are needed, rather than blaming the individuals involved in the crash.
For an interesting experiment, try looking up the various news reports on this story on social media. Look at how the story was framed, and then look at the types of comments people leave on the story.
And a final word-related plea regarding street safety: the City of Scottsbluff should revisit the wording on its street closure notices. The current template identifies the “motoring” public – wording that ignores the fact that people walking or biking may also be affected by the street closure, and which falsely implies that only motorized vehicles are legitimate users of our public streets.
Board President, Bike Walk Nebraska
Member, Tri-City Active Living Advisory Committee